As a part-time clerk way back when, I often teamed in the late shift with my buddy, Steve. He loved produce and we got along great. His one fault? He disliked customers.

Are consumers locusts or larks?

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

Disliked, as in the way President Obama dislikes Sean Hannity. As in the way Rush Limbaugh dislikes Hillary Clinton. As in the way Tom Cruise dislikes South Park. You get the point.

“Customers mess up my displays, man.” Steve would say, growling.

“True, but they also buy stuff, which enables us to have a job,” I would counter, trying to ease his pain. The guy was a perfectionist, or maybe he just had anger issues.

Varying attitudes toward customers exist. Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, a retail advertising pioneer, once said in a New York Times interview, “Teenagers travel in droves, packs, swarms. To the librarian, they’re a gaggle of geese. To the cook, they’re a scourge of locusts. To department stores they’re a big beautiful exaltation of larks, all lovely and loose and jingly.”

How do you view your customers? They’re either locusts, as my pal Steve used to view them, or larks, making those cash registers sing.

While I think there’s a Steve in everyone’s crew, most view customers in this light: Sometimes demanding, but mostly regular people just taking care of their shopping. And disregarded. That’s where I think retailers drop the ball. We always talk about customer service, but most customers come and go in stores, ungreeted, unacknowledged and offered no help (unless they ask), and many feel completely ignored.

Even the most staunch customer-service advocate might argue at this point saying produce clerks are vastly outnumbered during any busy period. And there’s no way to attempt to connect with everyone.

It made me wonder why chains couldn’t reach out to retired produce veterans and hire them to help customers. I know from experience that given time, I could hang out by the melon display and help people select ripe melons all day long. Because most produce people don’t have that kind of time, maybe the retirees could be an affordable (and ultimately profitable) solution.

Many retirees even volunteer to keep busy. A chain couldn’t expect them to do any heavy lifting, which they’ve done more than their fair share of anyhow.

But imagine how helpful it would be to have some ex-produce pros wearing an identifying apron and a trim knife. Helpers that mingle with customers, who strike up conversations, offer tips on which apples are best for salad or pie, answer questions, show how to cut up a mango, and 100 other courtesy chores that clerks are too busy or unwilling to offer.

Like, uh, Steve.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail

Have advice about dealing with tough customers or employees? Leave a comment and add your say.